The 727 that vanished without a trace in 2003

The ocean is big and deep. The most likely scenario, right now, is that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 crashed into the water and no one has yet looked in just the right place to find evidence of that crash. (You can read more about losing planes in the age of GPS in a post Rob made earlier today.) But the case made me curious about other lost planes — cases where an aircraft just "vanished" and nobody ever found a crash site or debris.

Naturally, Wikipedia has a list for that ...

The List of Aerial Disappearances does not include episodes of planes going missing in action during war, but it does include lost aircraft dating back to missing balloonists of the 19th century. In general, these disappearances have a couple of important details in common — they're usually relatively small craft carrying a small number of passengers. Amelia Earhart's missing Lockheed Electra, which vanished with her and co-pilot Fred Noonan, represents the norm on this list.

Meanwhile, the exceptions include some really fascinating bits of history that I hadn't heard before. Case in point, the 2003 disappearance of a Boeing 727. In this case the aircraft was relatively large, but the passenger list was miniscule. Just two men, Ben Charles Padilla and John Mikel Mutantu, are thought to have been aboard. This, on a plane that normally requires three people to safely fly it.

Padilla and Mutantu were supposed to be repairing and refurbishing the 727. Instead, they stole it. Neither they, nor the plane, have been seen since. And, to this day, nobody knows what the motive or the plan really was. For a while, there was concern that the 727 might have been swiped by a terrorist organization, to become a flying bomb, writes Tim Wright at Air & Space Magazine, but that idea seems to have fizzled. Instead, Wright's investigation turned up evidence supporting the theory that the plane was "stolen" as part of an insurance scam. Though what happened after the theft is anybody's guess.

Mike Gabriel believes the airplane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean soon after takeoff. One crew member from the fuel delivery operation thinks the Angolan air force shot it down with a missile. A Luandan pilot says the word there is that the aircraft went north and vanished near Kinshasa, Congo. One of Ben Padilla’s friends says the airplane was disassembled for parts in Bujumbura, Burundi, on Tanzania’s western border. Picking through the fragments of 844AA’s history, I found a story of broken deals, disappointments, and betrayals, but no real clues to the aircraft’s destination that day in 2003.

Image: Photo of a 727-223 (the same model stolen in the 2003 incident). Taken by Wikipedia user RuthAS and used via CC.